Cover


Title Page


Copyright

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

FOREWORD

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

PROLOGUE

1: A GOOD MUSLIM GIRL

2: THE MADRASA

3: DOLLS AND CHILDBIRTH

4: NINA, SHAZIA AND JAHAN ARA

5: SPREADING MY WINGS

6: LOSING ABBA

7: MY NIKAH

8: MAYA

9: IN IRAN

10: A GOOD MUSLIM WIFE

11: THE MODERN-DAY SLAVE

12: LOVE IN THE MIDST OF WAR

13: WORKING ON THE MARRIAGE

14: FAREWELL, IRAN

15: THROUGH TURKEY

16: BRICK LANE

17: WHERE CAN I TURN?

18: LIFE IN THE WOMEN’S REFUGE

19: MAYA RETURNS

20: STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL

21: RECONCILIATION IN BRUNEI

22: THE LAND OF THE LONG WHITE CLOUD

23: SHAKTI, NEW ZEALAND

24: CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

25: SHAKTI FINDS A HOME

26: AT THE CROSSROADS

27: DIFFERENT PATHS, DIFFERENT JOURNEYS

28: REFUGE FOR MIGRANT WOMAN

29: BELIEVING IN MYSELF

30: DISCOVERING DYSLEXIA

31: KARAMJIT KAUR

32: AN UNEXPECTED AWARD

33: A NEW JOURNEY

34: BEING MUSLIM

35: KEEPING THE FAITH

36: FINDING MYSELF

EPILOGUE

FRONT COVER FLAP

BACK COVER FLAP

BACK COVER MATERIAL

Dedicated to all women who stand against oppression and domestic violence, to survivors struggling to emerge from violence and abuse, and to those who have lost their lives to the struggle.

FOREWORD

Violence is perpetrated against women and girls in every corner of the globe. In a report to the General Assembly in 2006, the United Nations Secretary-General stated that ‘at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime with the abuser usually someone known to her.’1 For women aged 15–44, violence causes more death and disability than war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents.2

These shocking statistics represent an appalling reality for women in societies from the most affluent to the most impoverished in the world. Yet for so long little was done to rescue women from the wretchedness of domestic violence or even to acknowledge the problem. It was not until 1964 that the first women’s refuge was established in California. But within ten years, as the women’s movement gathered momentum, similar havens for battered women and their children had sprung up in most western countries.

In many parts of the world, however, the situation for women has not improved, and refuges do not exist for women trapped by economic dependency on husbands and fathers whose social domination is matched by superior physical strength.

It was into such an environment that Farida Sultana was born. Her upbringing, however, did not prepare her for the abuse she later suffered when her husband relocated the family to the United Kingdom. It was a women’s refuge in Edinburgh which rescued her. That experience later inspired her to establish Shakti, the first refuge in New Zealand for abused immigrant women, after she settled there. During the past 15 years, Shakti has provided a safe haven for thousands of immigrant women in several cities in New Zealand and abroad.

I commend Farida’s inspirational story of bravery and enterprise, and endorse her wish that refuges like Shakti be established in countries where women currently cannot easily escape abuse. Just as necessary is the education of both men and women in the futility of violence. Only mutual gender respect will create a safer world for future generations.


Helen Clark
Head of the United Nations Development Programme
Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1999–2008

1General Assembly. In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General, 2006. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006.Back
2World Bank Study World Development Report: Investing in Health, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.Back

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I owe a debt of gratitude to my co-author, Shila Nair. Because I am dyslexic, my story would have remained untold among countless others had it not been for Shila’s skill with words. We have spent eight years writing this book and she has been an integral part of this very personal and emotional journey.

I also want to thank Adrienne Jansen, who spent hours with Shila and me restructuring the chapters and moulding the book into its final shape. She has been an inspiration to us and I thank her for her perseverance, which kept us going when our own sagged.

Thanks too to Barbara Else from TFS for assessing the manuscript, providing sound advice and letting us know that we need to keep our chins up.

I also acknowledge my mother and daughter for being supportive in my endeavours and my decision to write my story. I feel blessed to have them in my life.

This list would not be complete without mentioning Shakti and the women who have stood by me through bad times and good, some of whom have consented to be named in this book.

Farida Sultana

PROLOGUE

Christmas night, 2009. Just 48 hours ago, I had no idea we would be here. Maya and I walk through the snow from the hospital to the guesthouse. In the shimmer of the street lights, I can see a white blanket of snow stretching out in front of me, getting thicker by the minute. The pitch-black sky is empty of stars. Life is at a standstill.

The weather forecast for Lawrence, Kansas is more snow. It reminds me of our days in Iran, the first time I ever saw the snow. We were living in Shogan then. Akram had returned from his hospital rounds, excited. ‘I heard over the radio, it’s going to snow tonight,’ he had said. I was thrilled to hear that and had tried to stay awake during the night. It did snow, but when we were fast asleep. The next morning, the ground outside was pristine white. It was an incredible sight! In Bangladesh, where we had grown up, it never snows. Akram had run to get Maya from the bedroom. She was only four months old, but he wanted to show her the snow. With Maya propped up on one arm, he had put his other arm around me. We were a newly married couple then.

Now here I was, back with him after 15 years of separation. I feel angry, sad and confused.

I had first met Akram Ali when I was 18. My father had chosen him to be my husband. As a naïve young bride I had completely trusted him. And now, what had he done to himself? What had he done to Maya and me? The pain and the hurt he had caused me over the years came flooding back.

Of all men, why had Abba chosen Akram for me? I thought of the times when I had been happy and carefree. I thought of the mela and the charki.

1

A GOOD MUSLIM GIRL

Just two blocks away from our house was the mela. The fair was being held as part of the Durga Puja celebrations, to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. I could hear the sounds of the mela from our house, especially the Hindi film songs blaring through the loudspeakers. I could see the charki, the giant wheel with seats that go round and round.

I love the mela. It bustles with people, colour and food, but my favourite is the charki. I must have been less than ten then and had collected enough takas to buy myself three rounds of the wheel. I was wearing my red, frilly, flowery frock, and my thick, black hair had only recently been cut to shoulder length. I sat on the charki with my hands tight in my lap as I went up and up and up. At the top, all I could hear was the music. I smiled. The seat lay still for a few seconds. It felt wonderful. I was full of music and my body felt so light it was as if I could fly. The charki turned again, and as I came down the music slowly disappeared into the loud noise of the crowd.

***

I was not allowed music in our house.

I thought of Abba. I had to be home before the evening magribnamaz, when he would pray. If I wasn’t home by then, he would be worried and Ma would be terribly upset. I got off the charki and ran home as fast as I could.

My father Eid Ail, or Abba as I called him, meant the world to me. He was my pillar of support against my angry mother who, like all ‘good Muslim women’, sought to ensure I was a ‘good Muslim girl’. Abba was like a breath of fresh air filled with freedom, which I inhaled as often as I could, much to Ma’s consternation. The only time home was pleasant and safe was when he was there. When he was away I would long for him to be back, and when I heard him opening the door I would run to him and hold onto him tightly as he lifted me up and hugged me closely.

What amazed me about him was his deep understanding of people and situations, and the way he dealt with them – with sincerity, compassion and a genuine respect, regardless of the individual’s social status.

He had no qualms about sharing meals with the rickshawallah who happened to be from the lowest rungs of Bangladesh society. Rickshaws are common in Bangladesh and very popular as a means of transport. They are essentially tricycles, pedalled by sweaty, emaciated men who transport passengers – some as stout as hippos – to and from their destinations. Abba would always agree to pay the rickshawallah his fare without bargaining, and would add further compensation by having a meal with him. He would address the rickshawallah as Bhaisaab, ‘brother sir’, which embarrassed the other man into a sense of obligation and profound respect for my father. By the end of his trip, Abba would know everything about the man, his family and his problems in life, and would have given him good advice. Before getting off, he would give the rickshawallah his name, address and phone number, urging him to call on him if he ever needed help.

Ma did not take kindly to Abba’s kindness to people below her social rank. If a rickshawallah wanted him to find a job for his brother and Abba assured him that he would, Ma would snort angrily, ‘As if it is your business to find jobs for them!’ Ma was very different from Abba. Material things were of more value to her than human kindness.

The women of the neighbourhood thought Abba was very handsome. He was of Afghan descent, and was lean and tall, around six feet. He had a sharp nose, bluish eyes, a high forehead and soft, wavy hair that he kept brushed back. He had an infectious smile. His skin was very fair and smooth, and felt almost silky. I am dark, like Ma, and I often used to rub my arm against his, hoping I would become fair like him. Abba was also a clean and tidy man, and he made sure everyone in the house was tidy. He was very respectful towards women, and he liked strong women. He always thought I should be like Margaret Thatcher and that the world could do with more women like her.

Ma was the product of my grandmother Dhudh Mehr’s long and persistent endeavours to have a child, and as a young girl she had been thoroughly spoilt by her father. She is short and stocky, and I have heard from others that she was quite pretty in her heyday. She did not conceive during the first 19 years of her marriage. It was very important that Ma produced children, because society demanded it, although it didn’t really matter to Abba. Ma grew more and more obsessed with the necessity of giving birth and tried various remedies to help her become pregnant. She tried homeopathic and allopathic drugs, and big sums of money were paid to British doctors for specialist treatment. Despite this, she experienced disappointment after disappointment. Women in the family held special prayers for her. When none of these measures worked, my mother finally figured out why she was not conceiving – it was my father’s fault!

‘Just because you are young, you think you don’t have to pray! You are not leading a pure life! No wonder I can’t get pregnant.’

I can only imagine how many quarrels Abba had with Ma on this matter. Soon after Ma’s nagging got worse, Abba gave up his carefree life, became more religious and socialised less and less. He became the homebody Ma wanted him to be. A few years later, Ma became pregnant with me.

My birth, I heard, was extremely painful for her. She was around 40 years old then and of heavy build. I came into this world through a Caesarian, after nine days and nine nights in labour. My arrival was apparently celebrated with much joy, pomp and splendour. Half the city was invited to the celebrations and four cows were slaughtered to feed the guests, with some of the meat distributed to the poor and needy. People fed me from silver vessels.

As I grew up, Ma would occasionally use stories of her painful pre- and post-natal experiences to reprimand me for letting her down. According to her, I should have done better in life. I had to be an extraordinary child, she often told me. That was why I was named ‘Farida Sultana’, which in Bangla means ‘extraordinary princess’.

***

My forefathers came from Munshi Ganj, a suburban district of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I am unaware of much of my ancestral history, but the elderly say that my forefathers travelled from other regions in the country to settle down on the fertile lands at the mouth of the river, which later came to be known as the Deltas.

Our family, the Houladhars, settled in rural Faridpur, which was further away from Munshi Ganj. They lived along the wealthier side of the Poddha River, which runs through this region, and owned huge tracts of land. My uncles, aunties and cousins lived there as well.

My father had three brothers and seven sisters, and I often heard the story of how his oldest brother died. The most adventurous of the three, he and a group of like-minded men took a boat and sailed in search of soft, new land, emerging from the waters of the Bay of Bengal, but were caught in a raging storm. While some of the men in the group wanted to return to land, my uncle decided to override them and carry on with their quest. He promised his friends they would discover the land they wanted. Within hours their boat, with 30-odd strapping men in it, sank like a stone. Only two survived, and my uncle was among those who drowned. As might be expected, the tragedy was enough for my grandfather to stop his other sons wading into such risky ventures. He decided to send my father, who was the oldest of his remaining sons, away to study in Rangpur, another district.

Eid Ali’s college education provided him with the opportunity to work in the government’s land survey division in the township of Faridpur. Land was very important to the family, with many of them being landlords by tradition.

The family called my father babusaheb, or Englishman, because of his fair complexion and bluish eyes. His younger brother, Mangal chacha, was short and stout. The youngest, Hashim chacha, was gentle by nature and weak in health. He had a lot of other weaknesses as well. I thought he was a character.

However, my most vivid memories are of five of my aunts. I remember them as being middle-aged and incredibly strong – tall, fair and of imposing build. They were called Khati, Sahera, Zahera, Chandurma and Nasreen. The most rebellious one, Khati fufi, was compelled to marry early. Her husband was a conservative mullah, a Muslim priest who absolutely controlled her and kept her confined within the four corners of his house until his death. Sahera fufi’ s husband died and she decided to look after her children by herself, without remarrying. Zahera fufi was separated from her husband and tended her farm. Chandurma fufi’ s marriage still remains a mystery to me – all I knew was that she had been married for a short while. These four sisters lived a significant part of their lives without men. I spent a lot of time with them when we visited our village in Faridpur, during the school holidays. Nasreen fufi, the youngest, was married to an Islamic tutor in Munshi Ganj, who taught at the local Arabic school. She wore a burqa and I hardly ever saw her. I did not know until much later that she wasn’t allowed to meet with her other sisters, as they were not considered ‘good’ women. As for the remaining two aunts, I do not have any recollection of them.

My mother held similar views, especially about Sahera, Zahera and Chandurma. She told me they were like men. They were an aggressive, intimidating bunch who travelled in twos or threes to ‘sort out’ problems created by the men of the family. They defied most feminine etiquette and customs that prevailed then, never wore the burqa and did not even spare their own brothers from their infamous taunts. In those days women were not allowed to voice their opinions at family meetings, but my aunts gate-crashed and broke all the norms. I particularly remember an incident during one such meeting where family members were arguing feverishly about some issue I didn’t completely understand. Sahera fufi, a bulldozer of a woman, suddenly stood up. She gathered the pleats of her sari together with her left hand and tucked them tight around her waist. Rolling her large eyes up and down and pointing a threatening finger at Abba, she hollered, ‘Chup koro, Eid Ali!’ ‘Shut up!’ For a few moments the family sat stunned and speechless. I looked at my poor Abba, the most moderate one at the table. He looked flushed with embarrassment.

My aunts were fiercely independent and personally managed their own farms and cattle. I found them extremely intriguing and often inspiring. In retrospect, I think that if only they had had the opportunity to study and be exposed to the rest of the world, they would have emerged as ideal role models for the women of Bangladesh! Their attitudes and courage left a powerful impression in the minds of young women like my cousins and me. Throughout my teens, whenever I acted uncompromisingly, Ma lost no time in accusing me of exhibiting my aunts’ genes.

Over the years, the trend of the stubborn aunties continued to show in the lives of the young women of the family. Two of my cousins (Hashim’s daughters) left the village and ran away to Karachi where they lived without the trappings of marriage. As for me, I paid the price for my aunties. My mother tutored me on how not to be like my aunts; she taught me to walk like a woman, talk like a woman, sit like a woman, laugh like a woman. The message was loud and clear.

2

THE MADRASA

When I was about five, Abba retired and we moved to Dhaka. He built a house in suburban Rayer Bazar and set up business. It was the early seventies and Bangladesh was on the brink of war with Pakistan. When Pakistan Radio banned the transmission of Bangladesh leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s speech calling for a revolution, Abba asked Ma to start packing.

Ma, who remained rather disconnected from worldly affairs, asked, ‘Why?’

Abba replied, ‘There will be war.’

‘Where?’

‘In Dhaka.’

A few of the younger members of the family were studying at Dhaka University, and Abba went out to pick them up. He wanted to take them with us to rural Faridpur, about a day’s boat journey from Dhaka, which he thought would be safer than the capital. But not everyone trusted Abba’s judgement, least of all Ma. On the journey to Faridpur she grumbled all the way, and from time to time ridiculed Abba and his opinions.

A week or two later, war broke out. I listened as the adults in the household animatedly discussed what they heard on radio. I was happy I did not have to go to school, and could play with my mates instead. Day after day we played Muktijuddho, the ‘war of freedom’, taking turns at pretending to be Pakistani and Bangladeshi soldiers fighting the war.

After two months, some of my young uncles and cousins enrolled to join the fighting. It was then that ‘war’ came home. Elderly women and the wives in the family cried as they bid farewell to their men. Some of these men had carried me around in their arms when I was younger. I wondered if I would see them again, and I had several nightmares about them after they had gone.

We could see red skies on the horizon in the next district, a few kilometres from where we lived, smell the battle smoke and hear the periodic boom of gunfire. The Pakistani army captured a good friend of my father’s, and we heard that he had been tied to two dead bodies and brutally tortured. A Mukti Vahini, or freedom fighter, told Abba that community leaders were being rounded up by the Pakistani army and that he could be the next target.

It was very frightening. Abba stayed inside the house all day and night, and we kept torchlights and other essentials in a bag in case we had to flee at a moment’s notice. The women of the household were asked to stay together and be alert, as news of Pakistani soldiers raping local women filtered in. At night, the younger women took shelter underneath the jute racks, where the dried jute was stored.

For the next nine months we were all fearful and tense. Three family members were lost in the war. Their bodies never came home.

Since the schools were closed, children were made to go to the village madrasa, the religious school, to learn the Quran. I was included in this, and I started learning the Quran, which was taught in Arabic. I must have been around six years old. All the members of our family were pious and prayed five times a day. I woke to the sound of prayers and went to bed with the sound of prayers, and we never ate a meal without a prayer. Listening to recitations from the Quran several times a day became part of my daily life. The atmosphere at home often felt like that of a mosque.

We followed the ‘Islamic culture’ in every sense of the term. While the female members of the family prayed at home, the men, including Abba, frequented the mosque. With the exception of the elderly women of the household who wore the burqa, the black veil was not a common sight in the house, but those who chose not to wear it became the target of gossip. They were called ‘shameless’ behind their backs, and their husbands were seen as wimps for not being able to get their wives to wear the burqa.

The madrasa, as I came to discover, had the most noisy way of teaching a language, and I found it a very frightening way of absorbing the Quran: I had to learn to pronounce and memorise the Arabic alphabets in synchronisation with the other children. The voices of 20 children reciting ‘Aaaaaliiiif ... Baaaaa ... Taaa...’ in unison was like the sound of 20 parrots in a room. As we repeated the sounds, I would sit on my rear and sway my upper body backwards and forwards, like the pendulum of a clock. I suppose this helped me to hypnotise myself into memorising the sounds, because not being able to memorise was a crime! With our concentration focused on the pronunciation and memorising, the true meaning of what we were learning was left undiscovered. The mullahs did not care to clarify that.

Huzoor, the teacher who taught us the Quran, was a hefty, scary man. He was very tall, as dark as coal, and his face was fringed with a straggly salt-and-pepper beard that flowed down his chest. He was most unpleasant. When our pronunciation was inaccurate or our memories gave way, he would roll his eyes and reprimand us in the most insidious manner: ‘You don’t respect Allah! You can’t even memorise or pronounce!’ I cringed at the thought of being disrespectful to Allah.

Normally Huzoor would sit cross-legged, but when he could no longer tolerate our trespasses he would get up and, stick in hand, move towards us menacingly, glaring at his victim as he did so. The length of the stick was more than my height. As he approached us, we would quiver like leaves in the wind and peer hard into the Holy Book, reciting the verses as loudly as we could. He would stand in front of his chosen target and command, ‘Open wide your palms. Lift your right hand up!’ I would shudder at the sickening sound of cane meeting flesh, then close my eyes and recite even more loudly to help drown out the sound as the cane came crashing down again on the left hand of the poor victim. If learning Allah’s way was so painful, how could I ever get myself to love Allah?

I woke each morning with the dreadful thought of having to go to the madrasa. During the reading sessions I would visit the toilet many times to escape the beatings. Sometimes I would pretend to be ill, and I am sure I was not the only child who played truant.

One day it was my turn to get a beating. It was a cold, wintry morning and I was bundled up in winter clothing as I walked to the madrasa, stumbling along the sidewalk, half-asleep. At class Huzoor began by spanking two other children, then he approached me.

‘Close the book and say your lines!’ he ordered.

I closed my book and, with eyes shut tight, tried desperately to repeat what I had memorised. I got it wrong. I knew I had it coming. I extended my right palm. Whaaaack! I winced as I felt the stinging pain on my palm. The skin burnt as I received three more lashings, after which Huzoor targeted my left hand. I was too frightened to cry out and whimpered in pain as my eyes welled up with tears.

The class over, I scooted home. When I got there, I pulled off my clothes and the dupatta which covered my hair and threw them on the floor.

‘I hate Allah!’ I screamed. ‘I never ever want to go to the madrasa again!’

Ma retorted sharply, ‘Chupkar badmash!’ ‘Shut up, you arrogant brat!’

Abba smiled, hugged me and took me onto his lap. I showed him my swollen palms. ‘You should have studied before you went to class,’ he said, patting my hands gently.

My palms bore the bluish-red marks of the lashings for almost a week afterwards. Abba asked Hayatoon, a young woman who worked in our house, to carry me around for the next few days. She would perch me on her hip, and as I cried loudly over my sore palms she would blow into them and comfort me. ‘Khalla muni, my little aunty, it will get better. Don’t cry. That mullah is a bastard!’ I felt a lot better.

***

Hayatoon lived in rural Faridpur, along the impoverished side of the Poddha River, where there were scores of little huts made of mud, grass and palm leaves. The people who lived in these huts worked for families on the opposite side of the river. For generations, many of them worked for our family. Apart from when they were working on our farms or in our kitchens, these poor people were not permitted to cross to our side, not even for a visit, or a chat. As a young girl, every morning I would watch the women and children disembarking from the boats that anchored on our side of the river. The men arrived separately and went straight to the farms to tend the rice paddies, lentils, wheat, jute and other plantations. The women and their children headed for the kitchens. It was made clear to all of us that these people were servants and were to be treated as such. Our family’s primary source of income was the produce of the land these unfortunate people tilled. Another source of income was the fish that grew in large ponds owned by the family.

Hayatoon was one such servant. But over time she became a part of my family, working in our house every day and taking care of me, and I became very fond of her. She was tall and robust for a Bangla woman, with a very dark complexion. By the standards of the village, she was not pretty enough to marry.

People like Hayatoon were not allowed to eat in the main dining area, so I often went and ate with her in the kitchen. Ma discouraged this, and tried hard to make me understand why I shouldn’t eat with Hayatoon, but I never really did.

Once, when our family was away on holiday, Hayatoon carelessly caused a fire in the kitchen. Fortunately the house did not suffer much damage, as the kitchen was separate from the main house and the fire was controlled before it could reach it. But I feared for Hayatoon on our return. As expected, Ma was furious, and raved and ranted about Hayatoon’s misdeeds. Finally my father stepped in, preventing my mother from further rebuking her. He gently patted Hayatoon on her head and asked, ‘Are you all right?’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that fire to happen,’ she cried.

‘Oh ho! Don’t feel so bad,’ Abba said. ‘Anyone could have had that kind of accident.’

Though Abba managed to shut Ma up, he could not silence the rest of the family. ‘That tall idiot! The fire could have destroyed our house! We don’t want her to work in our kitchens! It’s not safe to leave the house in her care.’

One evening as Ma sat chewing paan – a mixture of acacia nut and other spicy condiments placed on a betel leaf – and gossiping with the other women, I saw Hayatoon huddled in the half-burnt kitchen, weeping silently. Abba had gone to the mosque for his prayers. I saw some of the women go into the kitchen and taunt Hayatoon for being so stupid. ‘No one will marry such an idiotic woman!’

I watched her face crinkle as she waited for the gossipmongers to leave. She generally ate unusually large amounts of food, but that night she did not eat, even though Ma put food on her plate. I noticed how she ate less and less over the next few days and spoke very little.

One day, on the way to the market, I asked her what she would do when she grew up. ‘I’ve already grown up,’ she smiled.

‘What do you want to do, when you really, really grow up?’ I asked.

‘I can’t grow any further. I am 23 years old and all the girls my age are married,’ she said wryly.

Hayatoon wanted to marry and have her own home and children, and I just couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for her to find a man. I thought she was nice and pretty and a really good person. When I returned home, I asked Abba why Hayatoon couldn’t get married. He looked up from his newspaper and mumbled, ‘She needs money to get married.’

I wondered why one of the men from the farms, for whom Hayatoon cooked, could not marry her. Why couldn’t Abba tell one of them to marry her?

Hayatoon lived with her old mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, which only made things worse for her. Who would marry a woman with tuberculosis in the family?

Life continued in the same way for Hayatoon until her mother died. After that, she sold her meagre possessions and offered her mother’s savings as a dowry in return for marriage to a twice-married old man with another wife and several children. He was happy to marry her because he wanted an extra farmhand.

I never saw Hayatoon again, but I heard from others that she had moved to another village. I thought back to the days when she used to take me to the river when she went to fetch water. On the way, she would pick me up and hold me up by my legs so that I could reach out and pluck fruit from the trees. And at other times, when my mother hit me, Hayatoon would shield me.

I often thought of her after she left the village, and missed her, especially as she had left without saying goodbye.

3

DOLLS AND CHILDBIRTH

With the liberation of Bangladesh, the war was over. The Pakistani army had conceded defeat before the Mukti Vahini. I did not know exactly how we had gained liberation from Pakistan; all I knew was that now things would get back to normal.

I had missed almost a year and a half of school because of the war, and when we returned to Rayer Bazar in Dhaka all the children of my age, including me, were promoted to the next class.

I went to the Dhanmondy Secondary Girls School, which was across the lake from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s house. Sometimes I went by rickshaw and at other times I walked with classmates who lived in the neighbourhood. My parents expected me to excel in class. I was expected to read, write and spell well, and to participate in class competitions. I didn’t know it then, but in fact I was dyslexic, and reading and writing were almost impossible for me. Initially I was told, ‘You are lazy! You don’t study enough!’ That went on for a while, then I was told I was not concentrating hard enough – which, when I heard it repeatedly, did nothing to improve my concentration. Then a tutor was hired to come home after class and give me lessons on concentration. That did not work either. Finally, I was given the big stick.

At this point I became rebellious and lost interest in studying. Instead of going to school, I increasingly stayed home in bed, pretending to be sick. On the days I had to go to school, I walked as slowly as I could. If I was put on a rickshaw, I asked the driver to drop me some distance away from school so that I could walk by the shops and gaze in the windows. When I reached school, I went straight to the playground and stayed there for as long as I could. I cried in frustration. Why couldn’t I read and write like my classmates? When I came home from school the pressure continued, with my tutor chiding me for being unable to do my homework well.

Eventually I had had enough of books and studies. All I wanted to do was play with my dolls. I loved dolls. It didn’t matter how they looked – old, tattered, disabled or new. A large red suitcase stuffed with dolls occupied pride of place in my room. Those that didn’t fit in were stuffed into shoeboxes. My collection included mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers and grandfathers – big families of them. Most of the dolls were my own creations. I made them out of pieces of colourful cloth and other fabric that lay unused or that I acquired from the local tailor. Many were modelled on my relatives. When I met someone new, I would lose no time in replicating them in cloth and adding them to my collection. I took great delight in designing each doll to reflect the person’s personality, drawing moustaches on some, adding frowns on others. Any misfortune in the real world would manifest itself quickly in my world of dolls. Every afternoon I would lay them out on the floor, sit beside them and dress them as I talked, cuddling and scolding them as I pleased.

I also shared my mute doll families with the other girls in the neighbourhood, who had their own collections too. My favourite among these girls was Noor, who was a distant cousin of mine. I thought she and our friend, Firdausi, had the most beautiful dolls. The most important part of our doll play was exploring suitable matches for our female dolls. My focus, however, was on getting my dolls to produce babies, which according to me was impossible until they got married. Marriage, I thought, was instrumental in creating babies, and I got one of my female dolls, Shivli, married to Firdausi’s male doll, Afzal.

That winter, Noor’s mother was pregnant and had an incredibly swollen belly. I was plagued with anxiety about her ability to breathe and eagerly waited for the day she would deliver and be relieved of her heavy burden. Late one evening, it happened. Ma was hastily summoned to Noor’s house and it became clear that Noor’s mother was giving birth. I went across to her house and found everyone tense, running around distractedly. No one spared a glance for me as I stood petrified in the middle of the chaos, wringing my hands. I was desperate to see what was happening inside the room where Noor’s mother lay screaming, but children were not considered hygienic and I wasn’t allowed to enter, despite my repeated pleas.

I remembered a conversation I had had with Ma about how I had come into this world. She told me I had emerged from her stomach, which had been cut wide open to let me out. I thought Noor’s mother’s stomach would be cut open too, and my curiosity got worse and worse. After what seemed ages, she finally delivered. Twins! I was intrigued. Did they both come out together, or one after the other? Suddenly I became terrified that my delicate doll Shivli would deliver two babies at the same time and perish. This nightmare went on for a week.

Noor was thrilled that she now had two little brothers. I wasn’t – I had no brothers, and not even a sister.

My parents were not the least bit excited about my obsession with dolls. My cousin Nafisa, who often tutored me, was most annoyed. She said I was too distracted by my dolls to concentrate on my studies. One day, she asked me to spell ‘tomorrow’, which I couldn’t do, despite having repeated it over a hundred times. Exasperated, she slapped me so hard I fell off the chair.

It was not long before the family came to the conclusion that if I was to get anywhere in life, my dolls would have to be destroyed. One awful day, my entire collection disappeared, along with the red suitcase and the shoeboxes that contained them. I searched every nook and cranny of the house. They were gone. I knew I had lost my little families forever. I was heartbroken, but I dared not ask anyone what had happened to them.

Eventually, I arrived at an understanding that my dolls had been my escape from the real world. I realised I had to grow up and have a real family.

With the dolls out of my life I started to look for other distractions. I loved music, particularly the sound of the harmonium, and I longed to buy one. Ma couldn’t believe I genuinely wanted to buy a harmonium and learn music. She was furious. ‘Girls from good Muslim families don’t learn music and dance. Only Hindu girls sing and dance!’ Plead as I might, she refused to buy me a harmonium.

A few weeks later, however, I almost got one. Our house was set on a large rectangular plot of land that Abba owned. In the front, near the gate, he had built four shops that he let out, and behind the shops he had built four residential units, including the one we lived in. There was a vacant bit of land at the far end that had lots of trees, beyond which was an area where we dumped our garbage. When Ma was angry with me, I would run and hide between these clusters of trees. It was there that Nafisa found a toy harmonium. When I saw her with it I snatched it from her hand and ran. Ma saw me running with the harmonium and began to chase me. ‘Where did you get it?’ she asked angrily.

When I did not reply Ma began shouting: ‘I’m asking you again, where did you get it? Are you deaf?’

I tried to escape from her, clutching the harmonium tightly, but she caught me by the hair and pulled me hard. It hurt. I started crying.

‘Where did you get this? Did you steal it from someone’s house? Boudhmanusher Baccha! You stupid child! You are going to spoil my reputation and our family’s!’

I cried loudly, ‘I did not steal it. I found it.’

‘Where did you find it?’

When I told her I had got it from Nafisa she screamed at me again. ‘Why did you pick up things from someone else’s house? And, this harmonium! Why can’t you concentrate on your studies? You want to be a street dancer, not a good Muslim!’

She ripped the harmonium out of my hands, flung it on the floor and trampled on it until it broke. I cried for the rest of the day, unable to forget how unfair she was.